Dear friends and family,
We’re on a ferry plying calm water between myriad islands in the famed Finnish archipelago, the largest in the world. In July, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Some are just barren rocks barely clearing the waves. Others are lush oases of forests dotted with red cottages and edged with spectacular granite faces and secluded swimming holes. Many Finns have their own islands.
At each port of call, a few people have gathered to greet arriving guests or receive supplies. I watched one old woman load a wheelbarrow with groceries and then make her way slowly along the shore path, wearing only bathing suit and a pair of pink rubber boots. Everywhere gulls and seabirds wheeled and called and dove for fish.
As we finally approached the outermost island of Utö, a small tow-headed boy jumped up and down at the railing beside me, softly chanting “Utö! Utö! Utö!” in the front of his mouth with bow lips pursed. It means something like ‘outer’ but it sounded really exotic.
Four people waited for us on the dock, smiling. The mayor of the municipality of Väståboland which includes Utö, Folke Öhman and his wife had traveled from another island to greet us. Susanna Sjöman, friend of a Loviisa friend (whose thesis was on Garrison Keillor), presented me with a gracefully profuse nosegay of colorful wildflowers. Hanna Kovanen who grew up on the rocky outpost and has chosen to make a stand there year round, grabbed our bags with strong tanned arms, threw them into a small tractor and said she’d meet us at the hotel.
Over the course of the long twilight (the sun only set for a couple of hours) and early morning, we learned a great deal. And we’re still reflecting on the experience.
Utö has been inhabited on and off since the sixteenth century—a gateway to Finland under Swedish kings, Russian tsars and coveted by Germans and Soviets for its strategic military position. We stayed in former Finnish defense barracks, now the Utö Havshotel, and had an astonishingly delicious meal there with funny, wise and gracious Folke as our host.
Hanna was our guide but in a way she was like a shaman weaving a spell. Strolling the island with her after dinner, we greeted her dad in a strange floppy hat to protect him from the midnight sun. He is a fisherman in his eighties and was, yes, mending his nets. We visited Binusas, the house of Gunnevi Bergbom, and heard her stories, saw generations of handwork, including a sort of archipelago lace based on fishnet knotting and a nap pillow that translated from the Swedish as something like: “I’ll just take five winks.”
In the stone church, Hanna began to tell us of the many shipwrecks. We climbed the old red-and-white lighthouse, rebuilt in 1814 after a war, slowing our hearts down in the only chapel in a lighthouse in the world—lofty but darkening in the gold-colored late light. The giant lens in the very top was a marvel to behold, crystalline geometry to magnify and maximize coal fire, then candles and now a bulb for the ship pilots. If they were trapped early by ice, they would spend the winter in Utö and an old pilot had once recalled that a merchant ship with a cargo of iron bound for Turku had wintered there in the early 1800s. Desperate for the goods, the iron factory sent a sled pulled by 80 horses over the frozen sea to fetch the cargo of the ship. “I was only a few years old, but cannot forget the sight.” 80 HP in action—no wonder.
As late as 1994 an Estonian ferry sank with 989 aboard. Utö inhabitants rescued 137 in the middle of that September night. The mighty sea claimed 852 lives. But we had coffee and rhubarb pie with Hanna’s mom who more vividly recalled the sinking of the American ship, Park Victory, Christmas Eve in 1947. She told us the story in Swedish (while Hanna translated) of a preternaturally beautiful night with bright starshine from an odd dark blue sky on new snow and the sea like a mirror. Her mom had pointed to a wall of ominous clouds to the southwest and warned, “Nothing good will come from that.”
Indeed by the time they woke early for services on Christmas, a furious storm had piled snow so deep that they had to dig out their door. Mother and daughter made their way almost blindly toward the church when they began to see tracks of barefooted people. With growing dread, they came upon men, some dead, some naked and all freezing and in shock. The fishermen of the village were dragging as many as they could from the freezing waters, leaving them for others to tend.
Hanna’s grandmother and mother saved three. One of the Americans was black. Here the woman began to sob and we looked at Hanna for understanding. The black man told them over the meager Christmas soup they shared that he had never sat at a table with white people in his life. After more than 50 years, his words and his gratitude still broke her heart.
The ferries that connect the islands are free of charge unless one travels with a car. Folke had discussed the great expense of providing services to these remote outposts. On some of them we’d noticed placards that all began: “Rakas Markus . . .” Dear Markus. As we left, Hanna explained.
An American artist, Alfredo Jaar, had visited Utö for a few days and found that the departing ferry left at 5:45 a.m. When he asked the captain ‘why so early?’ the captain had pointed to a young boy, asleep alone in the passenger seats. “The school on Utö only goes to a certain age. We have to get young Markus to Turku by 9:45 a.m.” Mr. Jaar was profoundly touched. He wrote to several Finnish writers and artists, requesting letters to Markus, to be posted on islands along the ferry route.
These I have just read translated in a small book as we travel to Åland today. What then is the value of civilization in a remote place? What is the value of the social investment in any single child?
Hanna taught us that self-reliance has always been the first principle of Utö but that everyone there knows that no one survives alone. “Community is hard,” she said as she hugged me good-bye, “but community is our only hope.”
Rakas Markus, dear boy of Utö island, do your best—that’s all anyone can ask. The wide world beyond that ferry route is vast and complex but in some ways more tightly connected than ever before. Just do your best—for all of us.
Cody Douglas Oreck
p. s. Interesting to reread good old Johnny Donne. . .
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.